Monday, March 3, 2003

Channels' acronyms all about marketing

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

The Learning Channel, American Movie Classics and Black Entertainment Television would all like to dispense with the formality.

Get familiar. Call us TLC, AMC, BET. Pull up a chair and settle in awhile.

When a television channel sets aside its name in favor of an acronym, there's usually an interesting marketing tale behind it, or a conscious effort to distance itself from the name's connotations. That's true in each of these cases.

When Discovery Communications bought The Learning Channel in 1991, the name fit the channel perfectly. Teachers stood at lecterns and droned on in front of cameras. The Subject is Taxes was one scintillating show.

Discovery jazzed things up, but it took awhile to convince channel surfers that there's no extra credit for watching, said TLC chief executive Roger Marmet.

"People always had this connotation that it was a children's channel, and that was one of our biggest pieces of baggage," he said.

It was about five years ago that The Learning Channel began using the initials. Now you'll rarely, if ever, hear that given name.

With its 3-year-old slogan, "Life Unscripted," and a concentration on nonfiction programming, TLC adroitly anticipated the current fascination with reality television. TLC shows earthquakes and harrowing weather, goes along on blind dates, rushes into emergency rooms and, with the home design phenomenon Trading Spaces, redesigns living rooms.

The programs are interesting, often exciting. But instructional?

"Every show has some information in it," Marmet said. "If you construe that as learning, you'll walk away from each of our shows with something."

While The Learning Channel brings with it certain expectations, TLC is a blank slate. Viewers can impose their own image, or be manipulated by clever marketers.

There's also a practical reason to go by the acronym, Marmet said. Most television program guides don't have room for a full name. It helps for people to have some idea of what TLC is when they see those initials in a programming grid.

Some broadcasters have gone by initials for so long that their original titles are lost to the mists of time. Who remembers at this point that CBS used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System? And how many fans watching dunks and home runs on SportsCenter each night know that ESPN started as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network?

Viacom officials understood the importance of acronyms after acquiring the country music channel The Nashville Network. Even though it was changed to a general-interest channel targeting young men, it was named The National Network to preserve the TNN initials. But TNN's country identity is so strong that it's considering another name change.

The switch from American Movie Classics to AMC is symbolic of a shift that many of its loyal fans aren't too happy with.

The 19-year-old channel was a haven for old-movie lovers, where they could see flicks like Casablanca run without commercials. But commercials were gradually incorporated, first in between programs and then within the movies themselves.

AMC also began airing modern movies (Robocop 3, Hot Shots!) that wouldn't even be considered classics by the actors who starred in them.

That's partly because of the seemingly universal need of television broadcasters to attract a younger audience and a siphoning off of old film libraries by AMC's competition, Turner Classic Movies (TCM, if you will), according to published reports. AMC officials refused to talk to The Associated Press about the channel's metamorphosis.

"We're looking toward the future," Noreen O'Laughlin, AMC's general manager, told TV critics recently. "We are a network for movie lovers, but ... we're looking to expand our programming and really intrigue people with entertainment about movies, and about the world of movies for movie lovers."

One project in the works is a series of movie parodies (The Wizard of Osbournes) from the maker of MTV's Celebrity Death Match. One special in development is about a film director thinking about turning to porn.

Black Entertainment Television's switch to BET is particularly intriguing.

Does it mean the channel wants to shed its identity as the home for television for and about blacks, even though 30 percent of its audience is made up of non-blacks attracted to its music and comedy? Was it ordered by Viacom, its new corporate owners? Does it signal a shift in direction?

No, no and no, said Kelli Lawson, BET's executive vice president of marketing. It's strictly about marketing, she said.

"If you think about a lot of brands and how they are successful - Tide or Cheer - it's because they have simple, short names that people can remember," she said. "The clothing line FUBU stands for For Us, By Us. ... Our goal was to have BET basically have a simple identity, something very clear that would resonate."

BET's recent move to sharply cut back on its public affairs programming is arguably a move toward its original identity - Entertainment is the channel's middle name - than away from it.

"Our programming philosophy hasn't changed," Lawson said.

So get to know your acronyms. The only time Marmet uses The Learning Channel nowadays is to avoid confusion when he's introduced to someone outside the business.

"When I tell them I work for TLC, they think I'm from the Taxi and Limousine Commission," he said, "or an all-girl hip-hop band."

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